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Exploring the SAHMRI Building

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On Monday 20th November, I was taken on a behind the scenes tour of the SAHMRI building in Adelaide by the enigmatic Tony Ashdown, who clearly loves coming into work at the SAHMRI building.

For those of you who do not know, this iconic building was commissioned to be a central hub of research and innovation in South Australia.  It is the 1st facility of its kind to house seven research streams under one roof and to have all of those streams working collaboratively together, sharing spaces and equipment.

The SAHMRI logo depicts a microscope image of a stylised cell where each component represents one of the seven research streams of Aboriginal Health, Cancer, Healthy Mothers Babies & Children, Heart Health, Infection & Immunity, Mind & Brain, and Nutrition & Metabolism.  By putting all of the streams together the logo represents what SAHMRI is all about – individual elements (teams) working together, being linked to each other and working for the wider community.  At the core of this work is an involvement with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community who have had continuous input and engagement since design inception. 

Another central tenant that makes this research hub stand out is the collaboration between all of South Australia’s Universities and hospitals. This allows for researchers to not only work alongside and with other teams, but to take the research out into the community without the usual issues of competition amongst facilities.  The aim is always to undertake “world-class research programs that pursue excellence in medical science with a focus on translating the highest quality research into practical health improvements for patients”.

Due to its unique shape and exterior, the building itself has been called many things since it was completed 4 years ago: cheese grater, the pineapple, the pine cone, the blue tongue, the mothership and even the air filter. With over 15,000 triangular glass windows, that all have to be manually cleaned, it has become a beautiful testament to the exceptionally talented building designers of South Australia.  Thankfully the original square concrete designs were rejected and Woods Baggot replaced that with a space that flows around a large central atrium and helix shaped staircase. All areas have stunning views out over the city, surrounding parklands and the newly built Royal Adelaide Hospital (newRAH) making this a truly inspiring space in which to be creative and make research a reality. 

Each floor is shared between 2-3 research streams and the labs which are all linked by a bridge and walkway system that are dynamically designed to have a positive airflow thus allowing the staff to move seamlessly from one laboratory to another without risk of contamination.  This facility also allows for the sharing of equipment thus reducing costs and encouraging teams to engage with different research on a regular basis.
Whilst on the tour we heard about the advancements in mental health (looking at mental wellbeing as opposed to illness), stem cell research derived from skin cells, the growing fields of epigenetics and gut health and the plans to build SAHMRI 2 where they will undertake proton therapy to treat cancers such as brain cancer whilst doing minimal damage to the surrounding cells.

Whilst we walked around each of the floors we also heard from SA researchers Professor Maria Makrides & Professor Bob Gibson about the advancements their teams have been making in research related to maternal and child health and nutrition.  A key focus has been on identifying factors that will reduce premature births and improve birth outcomes.  They are at the point of seeing research around Omega3 supplements, which have shown benefits in reducing previously unidentifiable premature births from occurring, becoming a national practice or recommendation.  But they want to take this further and look at the individual and unique requirements of a woman and identifying specific nutrient deficiencies so as to tailor any supplements to meet her requirements exactly.

The Professors have also been leading research around the composition of breastmilk and the best way to store it, noting that it is a living product with enzymes that continue to ‘do their thing’ after the milk has been stored in the fridge or the freezer and so they (the enzymes) have the potential for deterioration.  They are looking into ways to conserve/save those enzymes so as to ensure the quality is not lost through storage methods.  In parallel they are working on the re-establishment of a milk bank in South Australia which would be a sensational outcome.

SAHMRI runs tours on a weekly basis which you can book into, and I would definitely recommend it, particularly to anyone who has an interest in research.  This is particularly useful for midwives or midwifery students out there who are thinking about future career options.  Every element of the SAHMRI building is inspiring and I challenge you to walk away not feeling a pull towards the scientific career options available and the lure of discoveries not yet uncovered.

Always looking to be innovative SAHMRI have found a novel way to raise funds for research by making windows available for purchase (one of the 15,000).  All proceeds from the windows go towards furthering research at SAHMRI and your words, memories or dedication will become a part of the SAHMRI fabric.  You can find out more here

So if you want to be inspired, or if you just want to learn more about what is behind the unique cheese grate styled façade I highly recommend that you take a tour.  You will be amazed at what is going on inside and what this might all mean to the future of health in our society.